Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Lawyers, Guns, and Twitter: Gun Battles and Class Struggle after San Bernardino

Kent State, 1970 
14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio, crying over the body of 20-year-old Jeffery Glenn Miller. Photo: John Filo

As can be expected, in the aftermath of the horrific San Bernardino mass murder committed by Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik in December, the issue of “gun control” and “gun violence” comes to the fore again, highlighted by a teary appeal from President Obama for new “gun safety” measures. I’ve dealt with the issue of gun rights in a comprehensive essay after a previous mass shooting (Sandy Hook), and I stand by the position laid out therein.1

There are two considerations that, I think, count for something:

1)   The right to own firearms is an important political right. That is not a right-wing position. In fact, I consider the defense of that right part of the populist tradition in left revolutionary politics. Therefore, any necessary regulations on that right – and there will be some – must be as carefully considered as the limitations on any other important right.

2)   The American capitalist state is an apparatus whose main purpose is to protect class rule and its accompanying injustices, and to project compliance-inducing aggression on behalf of the American elite and its favored allies — locally, nationally, and internationally. Any mitigations of these injustices and aggressions are not the products of the liberal state’s inherent neutrality and altruism. They are the hard-won, always-precarious, fruits of social movements that scare the liberal capitalist state into forgoing particular wars, advancing particular minority and civil rights, establishing remunerative social welfare policies. etc.

In most “gun control” discourse, the first point — that gun ownership is a fundamental political right — counts for less than nothing. Most such discourse, in fact, considers it important that gun ownership not be considered a right, but some kind of frivolous luxury. Those who think that should acknowledge it, and advocate openly for the rescission and denial of that right, as do now the major organs of mainstream liberal opinion in the United States, the Washington Post (“The problem with Obama’s promise not to take away your guns”) and the New York Times (“it would require Americans who own those kinds of weapons to give them up”). The strongest, most forthright, statement of this position is given by Israeli-American sociologist Amitai Etzioni in his Huffington Post column, “Needed: Domestic Disarmament, Not 'Gun Control'”.2

If, deep-down, under the flimsy and perfunctory “I respect your right” façade, you agree with Etzioni that “domestic disarmament is a true, compelling vision,” then argue explicitly for it. Understanding, of course, as he does, that you will have to do this “through the back door” (because of that pesky Second Amendment), and using the armed force of the state to criminalize the 40 million or so people who own guns, who have done and will do nothing wrong with them, and who are passionately committed to their right. It’s a hell of a popular base that people who consider themselves leftists blithely ignore — nay, hold in contempt.

For most “gun control” proponents, the second point — the core injustice and aggression of the American capitalist state — also counts for nothing when it comes to this issue. They righteously protest rampant police brutality against minorities and the poor, the mass-incarceration state, the increasing restriction of rights in the name of surveillance and security, and the thoroughgoing purchase of the American political system by a corrupt oligarchy that oversees it all. But when it comes to this issue, most liberal gun-control proponents shift back into the mindset that, by and large, the American capitalist state is a benign, neutral force that mediates social conflicts fairly, and actually does, or at least sincerely tries to, look out for everyone’s lives and well-being equally. They must, musn’t they, or they would consider it a little problematic to have teams of armed agents of the state and its approved security firms saturating social spaces, ostensibly protecting them from the dangers they will have no means to protect themselves against. They would consider that it might be a bit problematic to create new crimes, and sic teams of armed agents of the state to forcefully disarm and/or imprison those 40+ million people who have done and will do no harm to any other human being. Or perhaps I have missed the gun-control proposals that include disarming the police and the repressive state apparatus.

It Won’t Fly

The reaction to the San Bernardino shootings perfectly illustrates this combination of contempt for fundamental rights combined with reverence for the benevolent power of the state. One proposal seems so obvious: Deny the right of gun-ownership to those on the “no-fly” list. After all, those people are already identified as the most dangerous, aren’t they? Who could object to denying them the right to purchase guns? That’s the seemingly inarguable proposal that Connecticut’s Democratic Governor, Dannel Malloy jumped on with “his plan to use an executive order to prevent people on federal terror watchlists from buying guns.”3

Except liberals and leftists and everyone concerned with fundamental citizens’ rights have been pointing out for years that these watchlists are, as the ACLU says: “unconstitutionally vague, and innocent people are blacklisted without a fair process to correct government error.”  That’s why the ACLU “cautioned against using the no-fly list in its current form as a reason to deny a person a firearm.”4

Please note the plural in the Malloy story – watchlists. The no-fly thing is not just one list, but an opaque, complicated system of lists. As Gadeir Abbas, attorney for U.S. Air Force veteran Saadiq Long, who has been put through the “no-fly” wringer for three years, puts it:  “It is as if the U.S. has created a system of secret law whereby certain behaviors — being Muslim seems to be one of them — trigger one’s placement on government watchlists that separate people from their families, end careers, and poison personal relationships. All of this done without any due process.”

It’s impossible to overstate how arbitrary and capricious these lists are. As I pointed out in a previous post on the topic, the strict no-fly list actually deliberately excludes those whom American intelligence agencies consider the most dangerous — the very people for whom it’s ostensible designed.  On the other hand, various less-stringent versions have included conservative Republican Congressman Tom McClintock, liberal Democrat Ted Kennedy, Bolivian President Evo Morales, the ghosts of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, and, oops, in entirely separate, continentally disparate instances, my wife, and me.5

Now that the right in question is gun ownership, what do the liberal supporters of the Malloy proposal, who have spent the last decade or so criticizing these no-fly watchlists, have to say? “[T]hey say the lists are adequate enough to deny gun purchases.”

Remind you of anything? It reminds me of Hillary Clinton, targeting the powerful tool of end-to-end encryption, arguing that horrors like the San Bernardino shooting require us to accept more surveillance, more censorship, further restrictions on rights of privacy and free expression: “[W]e have to deny them [ISIS, et. al.] online space… we’ve got to shut off their means of communicating.” She has no problem “waving off” the concerns of those usual suspects who always insist on protecting those rights, with a dismissive: “You’re going to hear all of the usual complaints, you know, freedom of speech, et cetera.”6

Gun rights, free-speech rights, yada, yada.

Are not Malloy and Clinton working off the same template? The War on Terror — No, really, ISIS, c’mon now! — requires us to accept new restrictions on some of our fundamental rights (perfunctory nod to free speech, gun ownership). And even though, yeah, our “government” hasn’t always been so careful when we surrendered some of our rights in the past, and even though we’ve been criticizing the very programs and agencies we will be surrendering them to this time (the no-fly list, the NSA), we just have to trust it. It’s our government, out to protect us, after all — this imperial American state. It’s adequate enough.

One can only not see that the same thing is going with gun rights as with free-speech and privacy rights, that the same imperative to surrender to the care and protection of the state is in play, if one assumes that 1) Gun rights, yada, yada, are not really important -- not really, you know, rights, or 2) There’s some reason to be completely trustful of the American capitalist-imperialist state, or to be more trustful when surrendering one set of rights to it rather than the other.

Liberals who adopt any set of those assumptions are, I would contend, mistaken, but there’s a debate to be had as long as they are acknowledged. I’m less kindly disposed to those liberal gun-control proponents who call out the flimsy, perfunctory preludes to undermining free-speech and privacy rights but adopt or ignore the same rhetorical strategies in relation to gun rights, and who contemptuously dismiss those who recognize the discrepancy.

Color me crazy, but I would think leftists might want to seek alliances with 40+ million people in defense of rights that are important to various groups, maybe even including everyone’s right to a decent socio-economic life.

By the way, Governor Malloy, this is how that works: As I said in my previous gun-rights post, I don’t own a gun. I don’t have a lawyer, either. I don’t need either at the moment, but I value my right to avail myself of either should I feel the need. The only thing that might get me to purchase a gun, as it’s already got millions to do, is a threat to eliminate that right. Proposing to use the no-fly list to deny that right might just do the trick.

But Guns Kill People, Encryption Doesn’t

Guns and lawyers protect from particular threats, and give you a certain amount of equalizing power.

Let’s look at three mass killings in which 14 people were killed between October 1st and November 27th this year. In one of them, a 21-year-old man named Anton went to a school wearing what the kids thought was a Star Wars mask, posed for some pictures with students, then went inside and killed a 17-year-old boy and a teacher, before being shot dead by police. In another, a 26-year-old man named Chris killed 9 people on a community college campus before shooting himself. In the third, a 57-year-old man named Robert killed 3 people in a medical clinic, before being arrested.

One of these guys was some kind of anti-immigrant neo-Nazi; one fancied himself a Christian warrior, with a history of violent behavior; one was a mixed-race young man who was isolated, sexually frustrated, and had anti-religious and white-supremacist views. All were very confused men, stewing in a toxic brew of persistent psychological derangement that became “inspired” by, and attached to, some intense ideological memes circulating in the culture that, they thought, gave their lives a higher purpose.

Two of them killed with guns, one with a sword and a knife.

All of these incidents were ended by people with guns.

What do we want to talk about when we talk about incidents like these? The weapons used? The weapon did not cause the crime. A state of mind did. The state of mind is the power behind the weapon. Some weapons may make the act more deadly than others, but persons in a certain state of mind will find a way to carry out such attacks, with whatever weapons they can — guns, knives, swords, or pipe bombs.  

This is often, but not always or just, a psychological problem. Any rage-filled act of mass violence will be overdetermined, and, the attacks by these three guys were psycho-political — more psycho than political, I would say. They were not part of any coherent strategy, and were predominately driven by a rage rooted in the psyche.

Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik’s case is different. They acted as a couple, and there is no indication of the kind of psychological derangement these men suffered. If the jihadi “inspiration” that has been ascribed to them is confirmed,7 we can characterize them as driven by a religio-political motive,8 without the strong tinge of psychosis, but definitely with a sense of higher purpose. The fear-inducing potential of such purposeful acts makes them particularly useful for discourses that insist on the need to restrict more rights, even though everyone acknowledges that they comprise a tiny, atypical bit of the ongoing everyday violence (“gun” and other) that bedevils American society. Highlighting such dramatic incidents also distracts from the inconvenient fact that the gun homicide rate has decreased, even as gun ownership has increased. 

What unites all these cases is a powerful, compelling, state of mind.

It was a state of mind — more psychotic than political — that drove Anton and Chris and Robert to slaughter random people at a school in Sweden, a college in California, and a Planned Parenthood Center in Colorado. It was a state of mind — more political than psychotic, call it a conviction — that drove Syed and Tashfeen to shoot up a holiday party in San Bernardino.

I was also, by the way, a state of mind, a definite conviction, that drove the young, future “domestic disarmament” proponent, Amitai Etzioni to drop out of high school and join the elite Zionist commando force, Palmach, that was killing Brits and Palestinians with guns and bombs and whatever.9

Which is more powerful, a state of mind or a gun? Not a rhetorical question.

In all of these instances, the tools used were not the causes of the problem. They may have been exacerbating factors, but focusing on the weapons used does exactly nothing to address what produces such states of mind. In fact, I would argue, focusing energy constantly and obsessively on the weapon distracts from addressing the much harder and much more important questions regarding what produces such states of mind.  It precisely treats the fundamental cause of the act – whether that cause be psychological, or political, or some combination of the two – as less important than the tool that was available. Would it be productive for a discussion of Amitai Etzioni’s violent acts in Palestine to be about “gun control” rather than his Zionist convictions?

Talking about guns displaces talking about causes of the rampant psychotic rage that is infecting so many young men, and about the gigantic pustule of jihadi and imperialist violence and pathology — retail and wholesale, perpetrated by lone-wolves, psychotics and clear-headed warriors, occupation forces and jihadi proxy armies, special ops teams, air power, and police forces — of which the San Bernardino shooting is but one suppurating lesion.

Talking about guns does absolutely nothing to address any of that. But it does make a lot of people who feel no need or reason for gun rights (except the right of the police and army of their state to have all the weapons they need to protect them) to feel morally and intellectually superior to the millions of people who do understand that right, and who own guns and will never do a wrong thing with them.

Let’s get back to how gun rights and other rights intertwine. Remember that California has the most stringent gun laws in the country, that all of the weapons used in San Bernardino were purchased legally (though some may have been illegally transferred and modified) by Syed Farook and his neighbor, Enrique Marquez, both American citizens, and that no proposed gun-control laws would have prevented the attack.10 How exactly shall we change those laws to make it impossible for people just like them to obtain a weapon? Make being Muslim a disqualifier? Or, re Marquez, being lonely and desperate to please a friend? How about visiting a radical Islamist website? Or any radical, “violent” website?  As defined by whom? Being born in, having family in, or visiting a Muslim country? A country in which there are armed groups killing people constantly in violation of international law and common decency? You know, like the Israeli army.

Please, tell me how that is going to work.  Can we really give up the right to gun ownership without giving up other rights?  Can we pretend for a second not to know that any new, stricter regime of “gun control” enforced by the American capitalist and imperialist state will result in a greater curtailment of many rights, in more surveillance, in more criminalization of dissident radicalism, directed fiercely and selectively against the opponents of imperialism and Zionism?

Because it’s not just I who notices that, when looking for the fundamental causes of violence, states of mind are more powerful than guns. State authorities, while ignoring the underlying injustices, will insist, correctly, that the networks of communication through which people are inspired, enraged, and convinced are crucial in creating the practical and ideological infrastructure of a determined fighting force. If you’re going to eliminate the scourge of violent attacks, and you’re not going to address its structural and historic causes honestly, you’ve got to disrupt the those networks somehow.

So, we need more surveillance and more gun control, just as the state insists. If you were planning a violent attack, which would discomfit you more, stricter gun-control laws or unrestricted comprehensive surveillance? Disabling end-to-end encryption will make it easier to prevent deadly plots, just as would random warrantless house searches and backdoors in every computer and cellphone, and shutting down radically “inspirational” websites -- just as more gun control will make mass shooting attacks less likely, less deadly, less something. Unless it doesn’t. Because those clever, convinced, and dedicated villains might find a way to talk to each other without infected electronics, and to kill a lot of people without legally-acquired guns. Maybe with bombs, grenades, poisons, or knives?

Tragedy and Farce

So we need knife control! 

Really, the Brits seem to think so:

Get a Life, Bin that knife!

These pictures are not from The Onion. They are from local papers in England, where authorities conducted a “Save a Life, Surrender Your Knife” campaign against “knife crime,” inducing people to turn in their deadly pointed instruments, including “swords, machetes and commando knives.” The weapons were used to “create a Guardian Angel sculpture, which will act as a national memorial for victims of knife crime [and “symbolise the nation’s stand against this tragic topic.]”….Detective Chief Inspector Steve Dowson said: ‘We are keen to raise awareness of the devastating impact of knife crime.’”11

And who of us can gainsay the importance of the tragic topic of knife crime in Lancashire? Perhaps there have been some dramatic attacks that were exacerbated by the use of knives, and the dreaded assault commando knife, in, say, domestic disputes. Indeed DCI Dowson specifically invokes “the number of families affected.”  So, knife control for knife crime, that’s the ticket.

Or, moving from the farcical to the tragic, perhaps we can consider the “young Palestinians with kitchen knives who are waging a ceaseless campaign of near-suicidal violence” against Israeli soldiers and civilians. It’s a campaign that has American and Israeli pundits scratching their heads and asking “What drives the Palestinians who attack Jews with kitchen knives?12

Is it at all helpful to make this a discussion about “knife violence”? Should we call Inspector Dowson? What role should the weapons – sometimes a potato peeler! – have in our consideration of what’s going on here? The one thing they elucidate is the imbalance of armed power as a precise reflection of the imbalance of political empowerment and enfranchisement. Palestinian Arabs have only kitchen knives and potato peelers to defend themselves, or to advance their legitimate human and national interests, while Israeli Jews have one of the world’s most powerful armies and a civilian – including settler – population that defends and advances their colonial interests, armed like this:

The problem here is not the guns in the hands of the family above, or the knives in the hands of the Palestinians. The problem is not “knife violence” or “gun violence.” It is colonial violence. It is the violence inherent in the political relationship based on the assumed right of one ethno-religious group to conquer, expel, and/or exterminate another. It is that relationship that determines who gets guns and who gets potato peelers, and what they are used for. It is that relationship that does the violence.

Does this mean that Palestinian Arabs would be better off if they were better-armed — or more precisely, if there were a more equitable balance of armed power between them and their colonizers? Everything else being equal, yes.  Of course, in the present circumstance, in the absence of more fundamental political assets (a militant, disciplined mass movement, unity of purpose, focused and accountable political leadership, strong strategic alliances, etc.), replacing knives with guns would only be more suicidal.14 Despite the illusions of certain American gun enthusiasts, guns are not magic instruments that will ensure freedom if you carry them around. Arms are not the most important — and certainly not the most immediate — missing tools of the Palestinian liberation struggle, in the single polity where Palestinian Arabs are now the majority. A firearm is never the first tool of such a struggle.

Still, despite the illusions of certain American imaginary pacifists, it is an important and inevitable one. Nobody understands better than the Israeli government and settlers that the disparity in the armed power of colonizer versus colonized populations is a crucial, enabling element of colonial oppression. And every ally of Palestinian liberation should understand that ending that disparity will be a necessary element of ending that oppression – and that, whatever tactical or strategic considerations Palestinians have about arming themselves at any given time, they have the fundamental political and ethical right to do so.

Remember Professor “domestic disarmament” Amitai Etzioni? He certainly understands, and accepts, the necessity of armed power in maintaining relationships of domination and submission.  In a 2014 article in the Forward, called “Israel’s Moral Dilemma in Waging Gaza War,” Etzioni ponders “the moral and tactical challenges…facing the IDF,” and “the importance of achieving moral clarity on the issue at hand,” the choice “people hate to face” — that issue being the choice to: “Either allow terrorists to act with impunity by mixing in with the civilian population, or be forced to bomb homes from which terrorists launch their rockets [my emphasis].” For tough-thinking Amitai: “Those who waffle on this issue unwittingly prolong the agony.”15

So, for Etzioni, Americans need to be disarmed (and don’t even think Palestinians), but the IDF, and maybe the settlers pictured above, are permitted to keep their weapons in order to continue the colonizing project for which Etzioini himself picked up the gun as a teenager. There are some people who are just “forced to” be armed, and some who have to be disarmed by force. And Amitai Etzioni knows who they are.

What’s the Matter

But what does all this Israeli stuff have to do with the United States. Surely you’re not suggesting that the American citizens have a similar relation to the American capitalist state as Palestinians have to the Israeli Jewish state!

Of course not maybe.

First of all, it may be easier to see, as an outside observer, how futile and distracting it is to focus on knives and/or guns as the source of violence in Israel-Palestine, rather than the underlying colonial situation. But it is no less futile and distracting to focus on guns as the source of violence in America. Guns in America are no more of a determining variable, independent of the potent brew of psychological and political psychosis, social inequality and cruelty, authoritarian-imperialist state exceptionalism, class- and race-determined injustice and police impunity and drug-war-mass-incarceration complex, upon which those guns float. This is the American class-warfare capitalist state and society in which we live, and it is that which does the violence.

The predominant liberal discourse of “gun-control” does nothing, and is meant to do nothing, about any of that. Indeed, its now less-hidden goal of “domestic disarmament” would only further solidify that state of affairs.
So, do American citizens have a similar relation to the American capitalist state as Palestinians have to the Israeli Jewish state?

Well, which citizens?

Has there not been a Black Lives Matter-Ferguson-Palestine solidarity movement, based on similar treatment by armed state agents as occupation forces? The perception of that similarity is based on the reality of the training of American urban police forces by Israel. For some reason, the masters of the American polity think it’s been appropriate to engage in a process that Max Blumenthal, Rania Khalek, and others have analyzed as the “Israelification of American domestic security.” For the last twelve years, some 9,500 law enforcement officers — including at least two of the four law enforcement agencies deployed in Ferguson — to Israel to learn how to police American neighborhoods. For some reason. Do you think Israel trains American police to treat their subjects the way the Israeli police and army treat the Jews of Israel — as fully enfranchised partners in a society, or the way they treat the Arabs — as a subjugated population, to be controlled? That is a rhetorical question.16

So, while white professionals may think it ridiculous to imagine their relation to the armed agents of the state on the Israel-Palestine model, for many others it is quite cogent. The Israelis, of course, are not the source of this, but it is amazing how their apartheid ideology and practices have been stitched into the system of urban policing and social “caging” that was described by Randy Newman 44 years ago in a scathing song (“Rednecks”). That song, by the way, is absolutely accurate to this day. It smacks the “race-blind” northerner in the face with the enduring racism in which s/he is entwined, and which is exactly what gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. (Warning: If you don’t know this song, you have to listen to it all the way through.)

Because America is a class- and race-divided society, different people have different relations to the state and its armed agents. Some perceive, correctly, that the state protects them with agents they pay to carry guns for them; others perceive, correctly, that they had better protect themselves with their own weapons in their own hands. And, despite what many liberals think, this is not a simple racial divide.

It should be no surprise, given the history of America, that gun-control policies have been directed against minorities. The classic example is the southern states’ Black Codes, enforced by what Adam Winkler calls “the most infamous … disarmament posse” --- the Ku Klux Klan.17 The wave of gun-control legislation in the 1960s was precipitated by Ronald Reagan’s shock at the Black Panthers armed march on the California Capitol in 1967 and white fear of armed black neighborhoods after the 1968 riots.

Pushing back, historically and now, African-Americans have insisted on, and benefitted from, their right to armed self-defense. Macolm X insisted that ”America is based upon right of people to organize for self-defense.” Fannie Lou Hamer was clear: "I keep a shotgun in every corner of my bedroom, and the first cracker even look like he wants to throw some dynamite on my porch won't write his mama again." Martin Luther King’s home was at times an “arsenal” of guns protected by armed supporters. Robert F. Williams, author of Negroes with Guns, trained the Monroe, North Carolina NAACP chapter in armed self-defense. When they successfully prevented the Klan from mutilating the body of a comrade, he wrote, "That … really started us to understanding that we had to resist, and that resistance could be effective if we resisted in groups."  Significantly, he found that being armed changed their relation to the police and the law: "The lawful authorities of Monroe and North Carolina acted to enforce order only after, and as a direct result of, our being armed."

[Do check out the video of Williams’s wife, Mabel, talking with Kathleen Cleaver, about how Williams argued that arming the black community “reduced the level of violence,” because it forced white racists “to make a calculation: are they willing to risk their superior life to take your inferior life,” and how “All the black people had guns…It was just not even discussed ..If in fact they heard the Klan was going to ride, they would be prepared. There was no discussion.” They stressed that, for black revolutionaries: “That was fundamental: the notion that people had to accept the responsibility for standing up for themselves.”]

Today, again, for understandable reasons, the “call for an armed black citizenry, [is] gaining traction,” with organizations like the Huey P. Newton Gun Club of Dallas (loosely related to the New Black Panthers), and allied groups like the Indigenous People's Liberation Party.18

Charles Goodson, co-founder of the Huey P. Newton Gun Club. Photos: Bobby Scheidemann

Tina González of the Indigenous People's Liberation Party

Huey P. Newton Gun Club members march through 
the Dixon Circle neighborhood of Dallas

It’s not about whether one endorses the program of the Huey P. Newton Gun Club, or of Don’t Comply, a white armed group that defies the law to distribute food and clothing to the homeless on the streets of Dallas. There’s a lot of bluster, and political confusion, in groups of people, black or white, parading around with guns. There’s also always a rage, and a refusal to be ignored, that, however confused, points to a social fault line that needs to be taken seriously — and it’s not “guns.”

It’s easy and common, but wrong, for liberals today to characterize gun rights as a pet peeve of racist rednecks (and they really should listen to the song, before they do). There are certainly racists who promote gun rights, and that fact gets highlighted by the media liberals favor, but there are other voices, and another, ongoing history, and there is no intrinsic connection between racism and gun rights.  In fact, gun ownership has been increasing faster among Democrats:

Liberal media outlets, which don’t much like gun rights, constantly present the confused and aggressive tactics of people like the Bundys — the kind of people their audience lives to ridicule — to remind us that only stupid crackers are interested in gun rights. Right-wing media, which don’t much like black people standing up to the cops, constantly present images of the confused and aggressive tactics of folks like the New Black Panther Party — the kind of people their audience lives to fear — to remind us that only ghetto thugs are interested in the right to refuse apartheid policing. Respectably establishment liberal and conservative pundits, who don’t much like any dynamic of dissent that threatens the increasingly precarious stability of the best-of-all-possible-worlds American capitalist state, constantly present images of violent Muslims like Syed and Tashfeen — the kind of people everyone wants protection from — to remind us that only naïve fools and terrorists are interested in encrypting their Twitter accounts. Each finds the appropriate prop for the right it wants to dismiss.

Sure, there are plenty of pissed-off white people. Should there not be? Should working-class whites (and every other working-class constituency, and all of their progressive allies) not be furious that their lives have been destroyed over the past thirty years by what Paul Street calls “a relentless top-down class war on their livelihoods, unions, and standard of living,” and over the past eight years by the largest transfer of wealth in the history of the country to the top ten-thousandth of the population? Should they not bridle at the endless series of wars and infinite increase in military spending that have no discernible interest for them? Should they not be livid at the utterly corrupt private health insurance system, now called Obamacare, that is flaying them to death with increasing premiums, co-pays, and deductibles, for fewer coverage options?

Should middle-aged white Americans not find it disgraceful that they have been struck by one of the starkest indicators that they’ve been relegated to the social wastebin: “Unlike every other age group, unlike every other racial and ethnic group, unlike their counterparts in other rich countries, death rates in this group have been rising, not falling.” As two Dartmouth economists remark: “It is difficult to find modern settings with survival losses of this magnitude.…Only H.I.V./AIDS in contemporary times has done anything like this.” This is the kind of scourge that happens when a population has been discarded and has lost hope, as have “Millions of once ‘productively employed’ white working class people … [who have] become ‘surplus Americans in a time when Silicon Valley geniuses soberly design the near total elimination of manual labor and intellectuals debate the coming of “a world without work.”19

Liberals delight in perplexing about how working-class Republican voters can be too ignorant to realize how they’re being conned by oligarchs in populist drag. It’s the process Christopher Hitchens, in his better days, called “the essence of American politics…the manipulation of populism by elitism,” and Paul Street restates as: “the cloaking of plutocratic agendas, of service to the rich and powerful, in the false rebels’ clothing of popular rebellion; the hidden and unelected dictatorship of money masquerading in the dress of the common people.”20

But perhaps those liberals should perplex in the mirror. As Steve Hendricks points out:
For decades now, we liberals have been shaking our heads in wonder at the working stiffs who give the rich pashas atop the GOP their votes. There’s hardly a liberal alive who can’t recite what’s the matter with Kansas: the parable of the downtrodden whites in their double-wides, so enraged by their dwindling slice of the American pie that they vote for hucksters…[who] go off to D.C. and sock it to the suckers who sent them there — shipping their jobs abroad, rigging the tax code against them, gutting their schools, taking swipes at their Social Security and Medicare.
But here’s an equally pathetic farce you don’t hear about much: Democrats are just as conned…Ask a group of liberals what they want in a candidate, and you’ll get a sketch of a champion who will fight for income equality, rein in big banks, defeat ruinous trade agreements, restore our battered civil liberties, look to diplomacy before war, and stop the devastation of our climate. Sure enough, in every election year Democratic candidates come along peddling such wares as these, and the winners go off to D.C. and sock it to the suckers who sent them… Any leftist who wonders why her voice isn’t heard in Washington shouldn’t be asking what’s the matter with Kansas. She should be asking what’s the matter with New York.21
Conservative Kansans fall for a plutocratic, imperialist agenda cloaked in patriotism, religion, and nostalgia for the good old Ed Sullivan days; liberal New Yorkers fall for the same plutocratic, imperialist agenda dressed up in multiculturalism, identity politics, and celebration of the good new Caitlin Jenner days. Who’s the bigger fool? How’s that working out for everybody? For the millions of victims of that top-down, plutocratic class war — in the ghettos of the cities and the hollows of Appalachia? For the Syrians, Iraqis, and Libyans, whose countries have been destroyed? Ad infinitum.

In such a context, where the American capitalist state has demonstrated its commitment to anti-democratic, oligarchic, austerity, and imperialist agendas, imagining that armed militancy is a reactionary stance is historically false and an important failure of political imagination. By all means, let’s oppose armed militants seeking the privatization of public land.  Let’s also, however, imagine what it might mean for armed militants to prevent foreclosures in a neighborhood, or to occupy and operate the water supply system for Flint. Doesn’t sound horrible to me. It is not impossible that, as happened with Robert Williams, the lawful authorities would change their tune as a direct result of armed action.

[Breaking:  As I write, “A militia in Michigan has joined Michael Moore… to seek justice over the ongoing water crisis in the city [of Flint] which left residents drinking and bathing in water so contaminated that the EPA deemed it “toxic waste.”(Militia Joins Flint Water Crisis Protest)  Let’s see how that develops.]

The fundamental problem with right wing populist militance is not the guns it may brandish, but the foolish and self-destructive mindset that underlies it. The problem with left-wing populist militance is that there isn’t any, because what passes for the left in this country is forbidden from imagining such a thing by its fundamental fear of breaking up either the Democratic Party Blue Tribe or the American liberal capitalist state, which it imagines can be turned back into a Good Daddy.

By all means, denounce reactionary and racist ideas and programs, but not the populist militance itself. Let’s, indeed, respect and address the pissed-off populace, demonstrate that we actually care about their, and everyone else’s, working-class concerns —  if the so-calledd left can bring itself to identify things in such terms.  Let’s stop telling them they should be grateful for the destruction of Libya and Syria, for the bailout of Wall Street, and for the fraud that is Obamacare.22 Let’s actually be angry and concerned about the unprecedented rising death rate among working-class whites, maybe a fraction as much as we have been about the HIV/AIDS phenomenon it’s comparable to. Let’s finally drop any reluctance to exit the Blue Tribe comfort zone, join popular militance, and redirect it in a radically progressive direction. In that regard, I guarantee: You’re not going to make anybody less racist or more progressive by taking away his or her gun.

And you don’t need to, and there’s nothing “left” about trying to.

The thing about fundamental rights is, they are not diminished or negated because people we don’t like use and defend them. Nasty, guilty people have the right to a lawyer.

There is an enormous amount of political confusion — not to say, stupidity (even among smart, well-educated people) — rampant in the United States today, all wrapped up in some kind of Red vs. Blue tribalism that’s supposed to (the very stupidest thing) correlate with the political “right” and “left.”23  Some people think that a billionaire real-estate crook is a man of the people. Some people think that voting for a war-mongering, slut-shaming, red-baiting, bankster-backed Democratic Presidential candidate is a “left” (Socialist-Feminist!) imperative. Some people think asserting their personal autonomy by carrying guns around makes for a free society. Some people think the American capitalist state can be a fine and fair vehicle for solving social problems if only everyone were disarmed, and we elected the right Democratic President and Congress. A pathetic farce, indeed.

None of this has anything to do with what I understand as “left” politics. It may be unfortunate — it has and will be substantially damaging — that people with such silly ideas have the right to vote and determine the future of our country, and the life-or-death fate of millions of people in the world. But they do, and must. They also all have the much less powerful and dangerous right to own a gun. And the right to a lawyer. And the right to keep the cops and spies out of their encrypted business unless they have a warrant. And the right to post whatever nonsense they want on the Twitters. And nothing that happened in San Bernardino, or, more horribly, Sirte, should take any of those rights away from any of them.
As I said, I don’t own a gun. This isn’t about the gun; it’s about the right. I think there should be fewer guns in evidence, playing a lesser role in our polity. I think we should have a more pacific society, where everyone has the right to possess a firearm, and nobody much knows or cares who does, where our civic space is less tense and less saturated with arms and potential violence (as it now is in the form of various armed agents of the state) — because all people feel secure in their socio-economic lives, welcomed in their identities, and confident in their democratic polity. We are far from such a situation. And it’s not the right to possess a firearm that keeps us from it. And I guarantee: Denying that right that will not bring us closer to it.


Links and Notes

7 It is important to state here that we do not know what motivated them. There have been confusing and contradictory assertions that one or another made statements expressing intent to commit mass murder in the name of some Islamo-political agenda, but as far as I know, nobody has shown the public those actual statements.

8 I’m going to say here that I consider the “religious” to be a disguised form of the political.

13 This is a photograph that was removed from the Palestine Info Center Facebook page for “violating Facebook Community Standards.” See: Facebook censors cartoon critical of Israel – Mondoweiss

14 There has been one shooting of an Israeli setter, allegedly by a Palestinian who escaped: PressTV-'Palestinian shoots Israeli in al-Khalil'

15  Amitiai Etzioni, Israel’s Moral Dilemma in Waging Gaza War - Israel – Forward.com, This article is a fine example of what Jonathan Ofir calls the “”moral’ argument” (his scare quotes on “moral”) for “shooting and crying,” an argument that bemoans “the inevitable violence of such subjugation,” in:  What's the big difference between Israel's 1967 occupation and its 1948 occupation?, Mondoweiss.net.

23 For an interesting discussion of Red-Blue tribalism, see Scott Alexander’s post:  I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup | Slate Star Codex

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